Romancing the Haskalah

When I first began to study modern Jewish views of Spinoza, I noticed a basic contrast between his reputation in the European Enlightenment and in the later era of Romanticism. The Enlightenment Spinoza was essentially a radical atheist, materialist, and determinist, committed to reason alone and unbending in his rejection of religion. The Romantic Spinoza was a pantheist and quasi-mystical saint whose theory of the oneness of all being—Deus sive Natura, God-or-Nature—was championed as a model of holistic explanation. So I expected that the image of the Amsterdam heretic that I would encounter in the literature and propaganda of the Haskalah—which, after all, everyone agreed was the “Jewish Enlightenment”—would be the first Spinoza. I was wrong. The maskilim (devotees of Haskalah) did celebrate Spinoza as a rebel and iconoclast. Yet their view of Spinoza as a “God-intoxicated” heir to a secret history of Jewish monism was anything but secular. It seemed, to put it crudely, more “romantic” than “enlightened.”

From an 1864 printing of Sefer Elim, by Yosef Shelomoh Delmedigo. Originally published in Amsterdam in 1629, it was popular with 18th- and 19th-century maskilic readers for its presentation of early modern science and mathematics. (Courtesy of The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary.)
From an 1864 printing of Sefer Elim, by Yosef Shelomoh Delmedigo. Originally published in Amsterdam in 1629, it was popular with 18th- and 19th-century maskilic readers for its presentation of early modern science and mathematics. (Courtesy of The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary.)

Were there other cases where Romanticism similarly influenced the maskilim? This question has not received much discussion. Happily, the kind of book I sought in vain years ago now exists, and one need look no further than its title, Haskalah: The Romantic Movement in Judaism, to appreciate the ambition of its author’s argument. Olga Litvak, a historian of modern Russian Jewry who has already written one book about the Haskalah, opens this one boldly: “The historical treatment of the Haskalah is a case study in mistranslation.” The Haskalah was not the Jewish version of the Enlightenment, and the maskilim were not enlighteners. In fact, the Haskalah was a product of the movement often seen as the “rebellious child” of the Enlightenment, namely, Romanticism.

Litvak’s book is the third to appear in a new Rutgers University Press series (Key Words in Jewish Studies) that aims to explore how certain basic terms in the lexicon of Jewish studies have changed; how they have figured in both scholarly debates and more general usage; and how they might be differently construed in the future. Here, it is fair to say, the goal of revisiting a key word has led to its thoroughgoing revision, though, if Litvak is to be believed, this was not her intent when she undertook the project. “[W]hen I started writing about the Haskalah,” she writes, “like everyone else, I assumed that I was writing a book about the Enlightenment. By the time I had finished the first draft of this study, I knew that I had written a book about Romanticism.”


Litvak’s case starts with the fact that, temporally and geographically, the Enlightenment and the Haskalah are not a good fit. The Haskalah “developed into a literary and philosophical movement between the 1780s and 1870s,” and was therefore just getting started when the Enlightenment, which “began with the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century and culminated in the French Revolution in 1789,” was nearing its end. While the “epicenter” of the Enlightenment was the North Atlantic world from 1650 to 1750, the Haskalah was primarily concentrated in Central and Eastern Europe. Litvak allows that a “Jewish Enlightenment” did indeed take place in the 17th and 18th centuries among the mostly Sephardic elite in the port cities of the Atlantic, but it was not identical with the Haskalah.

If the Enlightenment, as the title of Litvak’s opening chapter indicates, is the “Wrong Time, Wrong Place” for the Haskalah, the opposite is true of the Romantic movement. According to Litvak, the “core ideas” of Romanticism “were developed in the German-speaking world between 1750 and 1830” and over the next thirty years in “the imperial borderlands of the Habsburg and Romanov lands.” The Haskalah thus came into existence right on the heels of Romanticism, followed the same basic road map as Romanticism, and ultimately petered out within years of Romanticism’s demise. Put simply, “[t]he history of Romanticism overlaps in time and space with the history of the Haskalah.”

Litvak is hardly the first to notice this pattern. In the past, however, scholars tended to see it as proof that the maskilim suffered from a collective “time lag,” clinging to Enlightenment long after everyone else had moved on to Romanticism. According to Litvak, the notion that the maskilim were late to the dance rests on a misunderstanding of both Romanticism and the Haskalah. Drawing on a revision to the historical understanding of Romanticism carried out by others, she claims that, contrary to stereotype, “Romanticism was not dedicated to the denial of reason; it was no ‘enemy of the Enlightenment.’” What the Romantics opposed was not reason per se, but the Enlightenment’s excessive regard for reason, which threatened to deprive life of all color, feeling, and mystery. The Romantics thus tended to place immense value on individual subjectivity, cultural diversity, and intuitive knowledge. Yet they did so not with the aim of retreating to a self-conscious provincialism or irrationalism, but in search of a higher unity. “For all the variety and multiplicity of Romantic thought,” Litvak writes, “its style, its aspirations, and its themes expressed a common yearning for reconciliation and synthesis, for the transcendence of all particular finitudes.”

“Goethe’s Faust,” a poster by Richard Roland Holst, 1917.(N. V. Het Tooneel, Amsterdam.)
“Goethe’s Faust,” a poster by Richard Roland Holst, 1917.(N. V. Het Tooneel, Amsterdam.)

As Litvak sees it, this quintessentially Romantic quest for a union of extremes was, at bottom, also the maskilic quest. Despite the caricature of the maskilim as belated but ardent partisans of the Enlightenment, they were in fact more ambivalent toward its legacy. Certainly, they often wielded reason as a cudgel against what they saw as retrograde and parochial social mores and religious practices in the Jewish community. Yet they were no less disparaging of the growing number of “modern” Jews who were eager to leave Judaism behind, effectively surrendering their Jewish identities to the melting-pot logic of Enlightenment universalism. Like the Romantics, the maskilim were haunted by the fear of total rupture with tradition and community, and their solution for repairing it—the pursuit of religious renewal through the medium of Jewish cultural creativity—bore a similarity to what the Romantics hoped to achieve through art, poetry, and the imagination. Indeed, the very profile of the maskil that has come down to us in Haskalah literature (especially autobiography) is Romantic. However stylized it may be, the vision of the maskil as a solitary type, alienated from his surroundings yet longing for fellowship, tormented by desire and struggling to find a wholeness that eludes him, has more in common with the exemplary Romantic hero—think of Goethe’s Faust, famously torn between “two souls” in his “breast”—than with the Enlightenment ideal of the “man of letters.” “Thus, when we talk about the Haskalah,” Litvak argues, “we are talking not so much about the absorption of Enlightenment ideas, but their critical reception and imaginative revision. Strictly speaking, the Haskalah is the first post-Enlightenment movement in Jewish history.”

Out of this rebranding of the Haskalah as “Jewish Romanticism” comes a new take on modern Jewish history more generally. One casualty is the conventional wisdom that Zionism arose in response to the perceived failure of the liberal politics of the Haskalah. In fact, the Haskalah “was not a species of liberalism” at all, but a movement for “Jewish renewal,” one that contained many of the themes and beliefs (for instance, a nascent Hebraist ideology) that would later be taken over and developed by the cultural Zionists.

Litvak likewise challenges the idea that Jewish modernity began in the “west” before journeying “east.”  In the case of the Haskalah, it has traditionally been reinforced by a tendency to focus on the initial 18th-century “Berlin” stage of the movement, in the belief that it was here, during the age of Mendelssohn, that all the major ideas and conflicts of the Haskalah were introduced, before they ultimately made their way to Eastern Europe. Litvak’s Romantic reading of the Haskalah turns this narrative on its head by placing the emphasis on the 19th century over the 18th and on “Eastern Europe” over “Berlin.” Not only was the “Eastern European” phase of the movement longer than the “Berlin” phase by at least some fifty years, but, in reality, the “Berlin” phase might itself be viewed as “Eastern European,” since late-18th-century Prussia had far more in common, politically and economically, with its Habsburg and Romanov neighbors to the east than with the emerging nation-states to its west.


The great merit of Litvak’s book is to defamiliarize the Haskalah by depriving us of a translation that has acted as a crutch. For too long, the conventional definition of Haskalah as the “Jewish Enlightenment” has been taken as a statement of fact rather than interpretation. There is much to be gained by examining the Haskalah afresh. Litvak is right to insist that, as a movement that mostly flourished in 19th-century Eastern Europe, the Haskalah should be studied first and foremost in a 19th-century Eastern European intellectual context. This point may seem obvious, but the embryonic state of research on the influence of Romanticism on the Haskalah indicates that its implications have yet to be fully assimilated. That there was such an influence, and that it was in many cases formative, seems to me irrefutable. Litvak deserves credit for illuminating the Romantic pathos that runs through much of Haskalah literature and above all for being one of the first to grapple with the Romantic legacy to which the maskilim were both heirs and contributors.

But is the presence of Romantic themes in the Haskalah enough to sustain her argument that the Haskalah should be rebranded the “Romantic movement in Judaism”? Litvak’s pursuit of this more far-reaching thesis seems to me to come up considerably short. Leave aside the fact that there is little evidence that the maskilim, at least the vast majority of them, saw themselves as Romantics. Most cultural movements, including Romanticism, acquire a sort of coherence only in retrospect, and many of the thinkers commonly described as “Romantic” today would be surprised at the label. The main problems with Litvak’s case lie elsewhere.

First, there is a fundamental mismatch between the ambitions of this book and the way it is written. Litvak wants to bring about a radical change in the definition of Haskalah; she also, in her Prologue, expresses the hope that her work will “serve as a port of entry into the study of Haskalah.” But are these two goals really compatible? It is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to write a revisionist history aimed at overthrowing a longstanding tradition of interpretation while also meeting the needs of a beginning student who may be discovering that tradition for the first time. Still, the right course for Litvak to have taken, in my view, would have been to reduce the Romantic character of the Haskalah to a few key factors or rubrics and to devote a chapter to each.

But that is not what she has done. Litvak develops her argument in the third and longest section of the book, where she provides what amounts to a new literary history of the Haskalah. The section begins with readings of two foundational texts, Naphtali Herz Wessely’s Words of Peace and Truth and Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem; moves on to analyze a diverse range of 19th-century writings; and then circles back to the late 18th century to close with Salomon Maimon’s Autobiography, which she reads, counter-intuitively, as marking the “End of Enlightenment.” Drawing on her familiarity with critical theory, Litvak works by scouring these texts for signs of contradiction, which she then, predictably, pounces on to show that the work in question has been misinterpreted and, deliberately or not, does not mean what it purports to mean. This compulsive unmasking reaches a crescendo in the concluding chapter. Litvak takes Salomon Maimon’s Autobiography, supposedly “the paradigmatic account of Jewish Enlightenment,” completely apart, portraying “Salomon Maimon” (né Shlomo ben Yehoshua) as a wholly fictitious persona invented by the book’s true author—Shlomo ben Yehoshua—to slyly debunk the pretensions of the Enlightenment. The overall effect is of a Purimesque, topsy-turvy universe, where nothing is as it seems, and a Shlomo ben Yehoshua can come out in the end (as he does in Litvak’s closing line) as “the unacknowledged father of European Romanticism, a ferment that may well have begun with the Haskalah.” 

Postcard depicting a multi-generational family on its way to a synagogue, date unknown. (Courtesy of YIVO.)
Postcard depicting a multi-generational family on its way to a synagogue, date unknown. (Courtesy of YIVO.)

To be fair, Litvak’s interpretations are not always so convoluted. If her fastidiously close style of reading can sometimes lead to forced interpretations, it can also yield precious insight. Moreover, she has a lively and blunt style that cuts through the density of some of her prose with lines that provide the faithful reader with a welcome jolt. Still, it is reasonable to ask whether readings so intricate and esoteric that even advanced students may struggle at times to follow their logic (not to mention the novices to whom the book is ostensibly also directed) are enough to vitiate the conventional understanding of the Haskalah. Should we really need to peer so deeply into the sources to be convinced that they are products of “Jewish Romanticism” and not “Jewish Enlightenment”?

In the end, Litvak’s effort to impose a Romantic label on the Haskalah is no less tendentious than the Enlightenment labeling that she rejects. Litvak rightly combats the one-sided picture of Romanticism as politically reactionary and obsessed with the irrational and occult. What she fails to acknowledge, at least directly, is that this side of the movement did exist and that it grew more prominent in late Romanticism—a convenient omission, since Romantic irrationalism was by no means characteristic of the Haskalah. Meanwhile, her broad and sympathetic (if also selective) view of Romanticism stands in stark contrast to her reading of the Enlightenment as hegemonic and hopelessly abstract, a reading that bears all the symptoms of postmodern—and Romantic—caricature.

There is, of course, a value in strong arguments, and perhaps an interpretation of the Haskalah as a hybrid movement that drew on both the Enlightenment and Romanticism, yet was reducible to neither, would not provoke the kind of debate I expect that this book will. But it would also be closer to the truth. I cannot help but wonder if that first draft of her book she refers to, the one she wrote when she thought she was writing a book about the Enlightenment, staked out something nearer to this more nuanced, even ambiguous position. If so, I would like to have read it.


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